A clatter rises at Austin's newest park.
BMX bikes pop like prairie dogs out of a bowl that looks like a deep swimming pool. Skateboards grind along rails and soar off ramps. Riders whoop and curse and launch themselves into thin air, roll as they hit the hard concrete, then get up and do it again.
At the 30,000-square-foot Austin BMX & Skate Park, a cement oasis filled with ramps, humps, rails, stairs and a half pipe, a whole culture has sprung up — one focused on lanky teenagers in skinny jeans and wiry bikers in ball caps and cut-offs. On the fringes, videographers crouch over cameras, angling for the perfect shot as bikes and boards flash by.
"It's a crazy thing. It's a phenomenon. It's a happening for sure, and this is just the beginning," says Drew Pickell, 24, who works at No-Comply, a nearby skate shop. "If this park wasn't here, I would not be up at 7 a.m. on my day off. I spend pretty much every hour of my free time here."
The new park, built with $1.7 million in bond money approved by voters in 2006, is located at the south side of House Park stadium off North Lamar Boulevard, just a few blocks north of the dirt jumps BMXers long ago built in a city-owned lot on Ninth Street. Together, the two obstacle fields — one concrete, one dirt — have helped solidify Austin's position as a top skateboard and BMX destination.
"It's a pretty world-class park and world-class scene," Pickell says.
ESPN covered the new park's opening last month on its website, and Volcom, an international skateboarding brand, already has expressed interest in hosting a competition here this fall. A blog on the website for (CCS), a national chain of skateboard shops with a location at Barton Creek Square, describes Austin as "as close to a skateboarder's utopian paradise as one can get."
On a sunny summer day, the new park bakes with heat but vibrates with energy. "Do it again, dude," someone hollers, and Pickell, the skateboarder, slices across the park like he's cutting Jell-O with a searing-hot knife.
With no coach to lead practice, shout orders or bench players, BMX and skateboarding are all about individuality and creativity. Riders plot their own lines through the concrete plaza, swooping up sloped walls, flipping over ramps, and carving S-curves down the side of a half-pipe that looks big enough to drive a car through.
"You skate for yourself. I do what I want when I want. It's just for me," says Taylor Zettner, 19.
Zettner, who was president of the skateboard club at his high school in San Antonio, is spending the summer in Austin taking classes at Austin Community College. With shoulder-length hair, skinny black jeans, Vans flat-soled shoes and a repertoire of airborne tricks, he turns heads. He loves the rush of landing a move he's been working on for days.
"It's a real feeling of satisfaction," he says. "That's where a lot of the pleasure comes from, that brief moment of flying. It's just a good positive rush of energy."
He watches as someone soars up a wall, then flies off his skateboard like a human cannonball, a shoe sailing overhead. The rider pops off the ground and flips his board into his hand with the flick of a foot.
"Ow. That one hurt," someone says.
"Yeah, you're going to fall sometimes, but it's no biggie," Zettner says. "You learn to absorb it, rolling."
Action flows, with boards and bikes gliding past in unspoken synchronicity, somehow managing not to collide. They roll over smooth white concrete already accented with black scuffs.
A stretch version of a skateboard called a longboard coasts by; a guy on inline skates flips off the lip of a banked jump. It's easy to imagine sparks flying when someone scrapes along a metal-rimmed ledge on a skateboard.
"The only difference is what you feel like putting on your feet," Matt Schwartz, 22, says of the mixed bag of users. "I've never wanted to pick up a bike and ride down stairs, but I like to get on a skateboard."
Schwartz heard about the Austin park while visiting a skateboard shop in Waco. The road trip south was worth it, he says.
"I like basketball, but every basketball court looks the same," he says. "You don't drive two hours to go to a different basketball court."
Behind him, a BMX bike hops down a set of stairs. At the bottom, it bounces on its front wheel, balances for a few seconds, its rear wheel spinning.
"Without a doubt this park will bring tons of people. I'm really excited to have it in my hometown," says Hanson Little, 27, manager of Empire BMX on Airport Boulevard. He's been riding nimble, trick-oriented BMX bikes for 20 years.
"It's just awesome to have a chance to be creative in a public space," Little says. "I could ride this thing the rest of my life and still have something new to do every time. I love that places like this exist so people can come together and be creative."
Pros come through Austin frequently, but the new park caters to rookies, too.
Alex Solorzano, 13, has been catching a bus from South Austin to the park almost every day since it opened in June. He stays seven or eight hours, mastering a new trick with each new day. Today he learned to "ollie," or leap over, a trash can.
Timing is key to getting better, says BMX biker Hunter Ulvog, 14. "You try to get here real early if you want to get runs set up," he says.
Otherwise, it gets too hot. The park doesn't have much shade, and it gets crowded.
"I just love flowing around, just pumping the bowl, getting air. It feels so good — it's fun and exhilarating. It gives you that chill up and down your spine," says Sean McKinney, 14.
Isaac Phillips, 13, wears a yellow helmet as he fires around the park on a skateboard. His mom perches on a folding chair to one side, watching.
"I'm glad they built (the park) because it sort of legitimizes (skateboarding and BMX)," Sally Phillips says. "It's self-directed, goal-oriented and there's not an ounce of fat on anyone out here."
"It's something to do where you can go outside and be with your friends and be active. It just feels awesome," Isaac says.
After they're done here, they'll head to Whole Foods Market for lunch and then to Barton Springs Pool to cool off.
In the meantime, though, there's air to catch and tricks to perfect.
Isaac turns on his heel and zigzags toward a low concrete hump.
With a little practice, someday he'll be the one everyone's watching.
If you go
The Austin BMX & Skate Park is located at 1213 Shoal Creek Boulevard, just south of House Park Field. The park is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Admission is free.